Monday, November 21, 2005

Healthcare Marketing Blog Revisited

It's been several months since my last post and I've had a number of new business projects come online in the medical search marketing space since then, so I thought I'd get back into the swing of things by discussing them.

The most interesting of these new projects has been Healthline, a new consumer health search engine that launched in this October. Healthline is interesting in that it's the first vertical search engine in the medical space to use a medical lexicon to route users from vernacular type searches ("sore throat") to the most likely corresponding medical term ("pharyngitis"). This is incredibly handy to those of us not familiar with medical terminology (read: most of us) as it allows users to skip the time-consuming research process of learning the correct terminology - instead allowing them to jump directly to the information they need.

Healthline contracted my company FirstRanked Healthcare to provide online marketing services and development support. To date we've provided them with two very successful Google Adwords and Yahoo Search Marketing campaigns, mapped out a long-term link development strategy, initiated a long-term search engine optimization program, and generated several innovative new ideas for future Healthline site features. Healthline is an interesting company with a well-positioned product and I'm looking forward to continuing working with them as they mature into a major force in the online health area.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Online Advertising for Elective Medical Procedures

Elective medical procedures including cosmetic surgery and aesthetic/dermatological services present a unique opportunity to healthcare providers interested in marketing their services. Few insurance companies reimburse for these procedures and consequently patients are usually required to pay out-of-pocket. This shift in payment process changes the market for elective procedures in a number of ways as the patient:

* - Can now choose any healthcare provider they desire
* - Is more likely to comparison shop to find the best/cheapest provider
* - May travel significant distances to visit their preferred provider

As a result of these changes, the market size for elective procedures is effectively much larger than that for insurance-reimbursed services as patients can be sourced from outside of the provider’s local geographic area. For example, skilled cosmetic surgeons are highly sought after by patients in high-socioeconomic populations and these patients are willing and able to travel significant distances in order to visit a top surgeon. The large, potentially international, population for these types of elective procedures makes for a highly competitive market – one that also happens to be ideally suited to online advertising.

When people think of online advertising they typically think of banner advertisements, however new marketing strategies such as search engine optimization and contextual advertising are currently providing better returns and, if applied intelligently, can be far more effective at generating new patients and increasing business for a healthcare practice.

Very briefly, search engine optimization is marketing strategy based on targeting existing search engine traffic for terms relating to specific medical procedures. Something of a “black art” - search engine optimization (SEO) is difficult to implement effectively and results can vary greatly between providers of SEO services, however the rewards are considerable.

Example: A prominent dermatologist recently contracted my firm FirstRanked Healthcare to provide online marketing for her Los Angeles and Santa Monica dermatology practices. Los Angeles is widely recognized as a destination locale for aesthetic/cosmetic procedures and this physician saw an opportunity to increase business by targeting both local and national/international markets via online advertising and search engine optimization. As of the date of this article, her site is ranked #1 on Google and MSN for “Los Angeles dermatologist” and she is seeing a 40% increase in office appointments, all made directly through her website.

In this article I’ve focused mostly on cosmetic/aesthetic services, however almost any type of medical procedure where the patient is granted some freedom in their choice of provider can benefit from online advertising. Other applicable areas include complex procedures relating to oncology or cardiology services. As more and more patients go online to research their healthcare options*, online advertising will continue to grow as an important part of any effective healthcare advertising campaign.

* As of 2003 data, over 80% of Americans (92 Million) have used the Internet to research health information. Of this population over 19 Million have used the internet to research specific healthcare providers. Pew Internet 2003

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Business of Medicine Conflict

A business partner of mine had a conversation with a healthcare client which pointed out an intellectual conflict that I imagine is fairly common among medical practices and healthcare providers; The Business of Medicine Conflict.

Healthcare providers rightly feel that their primary purpose is the provision of medical services. Conflict however seems to arise from the idea that providing care is their only purpose and that attending to the details necessary to successfully provide this care, namely promotion and advertising of the practice, is not only unnecessary – but actually contrary to the ideals of practicing medicine.

Healthcare providers operate on a classic fee-for-service business model, however it can distasteful to some physicians to view their “care” as a “business”.

This fundamental business/medicine conflict underlies poor business and marketing decisions that negatively impact the success many healthcare practices:

* No Advertising – “We provide excellent care – people find us by word of mouth.”
* Insufficient Marketing Budget – “Advertising cuts into our bottom line.”
* Weak Practice Branding – “I’m a physician, not a product.”

From an emotional viewpoint these statements are understandable – they stem from a common desire by the physician to view their work as something unique that should be recognized on it’s own merits. The pragmatic reality however is that medical care almost entirely a commoditized service; outside of instances of medical malpractice, there is very little to differentiate one physician’s care versus any other’s.

In the end a patient’s choice of one physician over another often comes down to a name in the phonebook, the results of an online search, or personal recommendations from friends and family. It is the patient’s perception of the healthcare provider that governs their decision.

Based on experiences with the coercive tactics of pharmaceutical companies, it’s perhaps not surprising that many physicians view advertising as distasteful. Advertising however takes many forms and there is an important distinction to be made between manipulating public perception and simply publicizing an honest and useful service.